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Finding a DB-19, Angering the Internet

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About six weeks ago, I made a post titled “The $11185 Connector”, about my search for the increasingly rare 19-pin D-SUB and the price quoted by one Chinese factory to manufacture them. This post attracted a lot of negative comments, and I eventually removed it, but the original post was republished here. The point of the post was that custom manufacturing of DB-19s was going to cost substantially more than I’d hoped, and given the small sales volume of Floppy Emu boards that need the DB-19s, it probably didn’t make economic sense for me to commission new manufacturing. Instead, I’d have to research possible DB-19 substitutes.

Earlier today, I discovered two more sites where that post was linked/republished, and a parallel discussion had sprung up without me knowing about it. That was strange and a little uncomfortable, like finding people talking about you behind your back. The themes of these commenters were similar to the comments on my original post:

  1. Why are you using a DB-19? Don’t you know it’s obsolete? Your design is crap.
  2. You’re doing it wrong.
  3. You’ve a naive idiot.
  4. You’re a racist asshole.

Some of these comments were understandable, if inflammatory, if you didn’t know what I was building and why. For the sake of any readers who don’t normally follow the BMOW blog, I use DB-19 connectors for a vintage computing product called Floppy Emu, which plugs into the external DB-19 floppy port of a 1980’s or 1990’s Macintosh computer. Apple chose the DB-19 back in 1984, and I’m stuck with it. The sales volume is fine for a hobby product, but very low by any professional standard. $11185 to manufacture a batch of new DB-19s would be more than an entire year’s net profit.

That’s not to say that $11185 isn’t a fair price for the work involved, or that Chinese manufacturers should work for pennies while I rest my feet on their backs and smoke a cigar. It’s a custom-made part, so there will be engineering setup costs involved before they can make anything, and of course they’ll expect me to pay those costs. That’s perfectly fair. In my naivety I hoped that existing DB-25 or DB-15 machinery might be easy to adapt for building DB-19s, so the setup cost might be only $1000 or so. Apparently that’s not the case.

A few people suggested I was foolish for using Alibaba to find D-SUB manufacturing contacts, saying that I’d never find the best price that way. That’s probably true, but being a single-person low-volume business, I don’t have a Rolodex of contacts at worldwide manufacturers whom I can phone up to ask for quotes. If there’s a better way to find possible manufacturing partners, I’d love to know about it.

Quite a few people linked sources for DB-19s that they found on the web. Unfortunately those leads were all dead-ends. There are at least a dozen electronics suppliers whose sites claim to have DB-19s in stock, but if you call them to place an order, you’ll find they don’t actually have them, or only have a handful. I’ve scoured the web pretty thoroughly, and bought all the large DB-19 supplies I could find. I may have overlooked some, but if so, they’re well-hidden.

A huge number of people suggested I take DB-25 connectors, which are readily available, and cut six pins off the end to make a DB-19. And for a one-off project for personal use, that might be the best solution. I don’t actually manufacture the Floppy Emu boards myself, though – they’re made in batches of ~100 at a time by an electronics assembly company. I spoke to them about the possibility of making DB-19s this way, and they weren’t enthusiastic. They were willing to try it, but believed it would be an awkward, error-prone, and manually time-intensive process that would yield inconsistent results.

 
Today

I eventually found a supply of 500 old stock DB-19 connectors in Eastern Europe. Depending on the Floppy Emu sales rate, which fluctuates wildly, this should last me anywhere from three months to a year or so before another “DB-19 crisis” hits. So what then?

After more research, I also found another D-SUB manufacturer whose bid was significantly cheaper than the first one. Buying DB-19 connectors from them would still be a very large expense, and would require pre-purchasing 5 or 10 years worth of supply, requiring a lot of faith in the long-term sales prospects of Floppy Emu. But if I can’t find another good option, this may be the best solution.

I also worked on a couple of possible DB-19 substitutes, pictured below. They’re just 19 pins sticking out of a custom-made PCB, with a cable connector on the back. They work, but they lack the surrounding shield of a normal D-SUB, and don’t look very professional. I used a pair of rectangular LEDs as alignment guides!

The version on the left uses individual D-SUB crimp pins, with the crimp portion cut off each one. It’s a bit of a hassle to assemble, soldering it is awkward, and it costs $4 for the pins alone. But the result fits well in the D-SUB socket. The version on the right uses standard 0.1″ square pin header. The pin spacing isn’t quite right for a D-SUB and the pins are supposed to be round and not square, but the result is close enough that it seems to work fine, and it’s less hassle to put together.

DB-alternates

The most promising lead is from IEC, a vendor of cables and connectors that used to sell DB-19s before they exhausted their stock. On two occasions, their salespeople told me DB-19s were discontinued and they wouldn’t be getting any more. But I later received email from someone at the company saying they were working on getting more DB-19s, using some kind of new manufacturing process. In fact, during the time I’ve been typing this post, I received another email from him saying they expect to have something available by June! Assuming we’re talking about the same part, and the price is similar to what it was before, that could be the answer I’ve been looking for.

Read 10 comments and join the conversation 

10 Comments so far

  1. Josh March 20th, 2015 2:02 pm

    That’s kinda neat… I think the next step would be to make a 3d printed shield and you’ll be golden…

  2. Charles March 20th, 2015 3:13 pm

    haha steve you racist!!! LOLOLOL.

    I noticed that some guys, like lets say oh, AMIGA guys will say very nasty things about MAC or MAC people in general.
    its like a fan boi thing…

    Pretty lame and completely stupid. We like what we like and so what. I mean if you would rather push a Ford then drive a Chevy then that is fine by me. 🙂 HAHA.

    When in reality both model of Ford / Chevy / Chrysler are made in some city in Mexico.

  3. mark March 21st, 2015 5:17 pm

    Don’t take any of it to heart. The internet is full of a-holes. Your FloppyEmu project has me looking for a vintage Mac or Apple II.

  4. Steve March 21st, 2015 7:18 pm

    Sorry to hear about all of the negative comments you received regarding the initial DB-initial. I had no idea if was such a controversial subject!

    In any case, I’m grateful for the effort you’ve put into the Floppy Emu and hope that you can find a workable solution in the near future. Hopefully the IEC thing works out. If not, your improvised solution would be fine in the absence of an alternative. I would still buy a Floppy Emu. In fact I bought a second one simply to have around for the day you may cease producing them (let that be a day far in the future!).

  5. Karl Ramberg March 23rd, 2015 12:17 pm

    Did you consider a Kickstarter ? There could be a few people out there that would like to contribute to getting production of these connectors ?

  6. senso March 23rd, 2015 2:20 pm

    There is always http://www.mfg.com you can search in there for companies that might want to give you a quote, given that they are almost all specialists in prototypes it might not be a terrible ideia to try them as well, all the wording, drawing and what not is already made, just sign up for an account and hope for the best.

  7. Steve Chamberlin March 23rd, 2015 8:41 pm

    I tried posting an RFQ at mfg.com, but didn’t get any replies. Realistically, it would have to be done by an existing D-SUB manufacturer, possibly one that made DB-19’s sometime in the past and could dust off some old tools. I think Kickstarter probably isn’t the right answer for something like this, since I don’t really want to sell thousands of connectors in ones and twos. I need like 5-10 people/companies who would each agree to buy 500 to 1000 pieces. Unfortunately it seems the demand just isn’t there, so I’d probably have to go it alone if I wanted new manufacturing. But the most likely path is probably to build a cheaper substitute like those pictured above, or hope that some cable supply company decides to manufacture more.

  8. pitz April 9th, 2015 6:37 pm

    How about the approach used by Nishida Radio (from Japan)?
    http://tulip-house.ddo.jp/DIGITAL/db19adapter/english.html

    I have this UNISDISK cable adapter and even without the DSub shell, if I’m careful, attaching and detaching doesn’t pose a problem.

  9. Chris M. June 29th, 2015 5:59 pm

    Its June. Any word on that possible new source?

  10. Steve Chamberlin June 30th, 2015 9:50 am

    I just checked with them, and they still don’t have it, but they’re still working on getting it. Their supplier has a minimum order quantity of 10,000 units, which is too high for this place, so I guess they’re checking into other options or trying to negotiate. It didn’t sound like a major priority, though. I still have many months supply, so I’m not panicking yet, but boy it sure is frustrating. In the worst case I can build my own solution using crimp pins, or a method like Nishida Radio’s, but that would involve extra hassle and expense that I’d really like to avoid.

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